Monday, August 08, 2011

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" Review



"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is far, far better than it has a right to be considering the potential for extreme camp. A prequel to the classic '70s sci-fi franchise, "Rise" has the unenviable task of setting up a rather ludicrous premise - a planet that was once our Earth but is, in the future, devoid of humans and ruled by talking apes - while also having to take itself at least semi-seriously. (A previous film in the franchise - "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" - also flashed back to when the apes took control, but told a totally different story and didn't fare quite as well.) "Rise" succeeds admirably, linking up neatly to the other "Planet of the Apes" films while also telling a satisfying, thought-provoking narrative of its own. Having said that... I think the hype we've been hearing lately about the film is a bit over-the-top, though, and is more about the motion-capture animation used on the titular primates and how far the technology has come rather than anything about the film itself.

The plot in broad strokes: James Franco plays a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, working on a treatment for Alzheimer's that he hopes will help his ailing father (John Lithgow). Testing on apes leads him to conclude that not only can his new gene therapy be used for its intended purpose, but it can also cause the animals to become super-intelligent. At first, it seems great, and he brings one of the intelligent apes - Caesar - home to live with him as a regular member of the family. However, after Caesar is treated cruelly by humans, he begins to have second thoughts about his station in life, and the treatment of the other apes around him.

Caesar is portrayed by motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis (perhaps best known for inhabiting Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films). The Serkis performance here and the resulting animation on Caesar is tremendous, and probably the best use of CGI this year. Not just because the Caesar character and a few of the other apes are giving a full-fledged, emotional performance (though they are). But also because now this is Serkis inhabiting a believable real-world creature. We know how an ape looks and moves around, so seeing animators and Andy Serkis capture that essence, while also exploding it to make an ape do things an ape WOULDN'T do, impresses in a way that most movie effects don't.

(John Lithgow also has a really natural ability to interact with the "ape." There's a shot that's partially in the trailer of him comforting a scared and confused Caesar that's remarkable - you TOTALLY believe what you're seeing, and that these two characters have a backstory and a relationship. It's great stuff.)

The movie surrounding these effects is capably made, though better when it's a more conventional sci-fi story about science run amok than an action/horror film. The Third Act has a major lack of direction. We don't have a strong sense for the parameters of the "battle" between the apes and humanity, so it's hard to get too caught up in their success or failure. Also, the film WAY overuses the same basic pattern in these late scenes. An ape startles a human. Said human reacts angrily, striking or threatening the ape. The ape then reacts to the human's display of aggression with even greater anger, raising the stakes and attacking the human.

The need to get a PG-13 rating also hurts the film a lot in these later scenes. We get a feeling early on for the POWER of these creatures, so we wonder why they only ever seem to knock humans over, or slap them around. It's hard to envision a scenario whereby super-intelligent, ferociously angry and terrified primates armed with military strategy, spears and other weapons just mildly injure unprepared human civilians. It'd be a fucking BLOODBATH. (Remember that woman who got attacked by a chimp who had normal intelligence and no weapons? She needed to get a new FACE!) There's just no way to accomplish this and make it feel real without earning that R rating, I'm afraid.


It all goes wrong, basically, once the apes escape. Yes, it's sort of fun to see them lay waste to Draco Malfoy (though the symbolic gesture of having him electrocuted using not one but TWO devices he had used to torment Caesar was a bit much). But after the escape, they've sort of won. There's no real need to have them face off against humans a few more times en route to the forest. I get why the movie wanted to have a big action climax where the apes get to give humans what for after an entire film of being tested, prodded and abused. But the film doesn't do a good job of establishing their goal, and their need to have this standoff against the SFPD. And again, the lack of visceral violence kind of hurts the film - it starts to feel a bit cartoonish because no one's actually ever dying, save a few folks being tossed gingerly off the side of the Golden Gate.

Also, this is perhaps the first film ever made in which the total annihilation of the human race is an overlooked, disinterested B-level subplot. Such a lazy afterthought, and a cheap device. I get that it's a prequel and they need to figure out a way to deal with both the "super-smart apes who can talk" storyline AND the "humankind is all but exterminated" storyline. But the decision to make a movie that's 99% "super-smart apes" and 1% "virus that kills every human" just makes no sense towards the end. Why should I care about a few people getting knocked around on the Golden Gate Bridge when the movie has made it abundantly clear everyone will be dead within a matter of weeks?

Finally, the camp factor. The movie does a good job at being sincere and genuine and deeply-felt, such that things which would ordinarily get laughs in the first half (like a chimp going for a walk on a leash) don't. But by the conclusion, the pace has quickened and things get pretty over-the-top and the audience I was seeing it with was busting up at how ludicrous a lot of it was. (Particularly once Caesar starts talking.) If the whole movie was like the last 15-20 minutes, I don't think the reviews would have been nearly as good. I think some critics are taking the first 45 minutes or so and pretending that's the movie.

Posted via email from Lon Harris